The Mini Console Wars are Upon Us

ps classicPlug and Play games have been around for several years now. They’re those cheap little Atari-styled joysticks you see at electronics stores that when plugged into a television allow one to play games like Pac-Man and Asteroid. They’re novelty machines and an inexpensive way to say to someone “Remember this?” I don’t know how successful they’ve ultimately been, but they’ve persisted and may be responsible for bigger publishers to look at and say there’s more here than meets the eye.

Companies love money, and they love finding ways to make money off of things that require little or no capital. When Nintendo launched its Virtual Console service with the Wii it was a simple and inexpensive way for the company to monetize outdated games. Previously, Nintendo’s path to doing so was via its portable line which was always a generation behind the main consoles in terms of power. Porting a SNES game to Gameboy Advance was cheap, and gamers liked playing games they enjoyed roughly five years past on-the-go. It was a novelty, but a good game is a good game. When consoles finally reached the point where DVD and Blu Ray mediums meant storage was no longer an issue, retro compilations came into fashion. Few sold big numbers, but they didn’t have to since the cost to emulate the software was fairly cheap.

pacman

The start of the retro craze?

All of that changed when Nintendo unveiled its NES Classic Edition System in 2016. The tiny device was immediately attractive to older gamers because it was so cute and tastefully done. Pre-packaged with 30 “classic” games at an attractive low MSRP of $60 helped to make it the hottest item of the 2016 holiday season. Nintendo famously could not meet demand, and it’s taken the company nearly two years to finally make the system readily available. Since then it’s also released the SNES Classic Edition. That came with a second controller and 21 games for the higher MSRP of $80, roughly approximating the price Nintendo has always placed on its NES games relative to its SNES games via the now dead Virtual Console service.

Since Nintendo had such unbelievable success with its products, it’s no surprise then that other companies have followed suit. Sega has licensed its Genesis hardware for similar mini consoles with the added feature that most have contained an actual cartridge slot to play physical Genesis software. The results have been less well received though as the Genesis knock-offs have been rather clunky. Prior to that, Sega was arguably ahead of the curve by licensing its product for portable systems. They too were pretty clunky though and I’ve never had someone actually recommend one to me.

neo geo x

SNK and Tommo tried to make the Neo Geo affordable and practical, but it didn’t work out.

The newest entrant to hit retail is actually an older one as well. SNK too was ahead of the curve with its Neo Geo X released in 2012. The NGX was basically the precursor to the Nintendo Switch. It was a handheld console with 20 pre-loaded Neo Geo games and room for expansion via game cards. It came with a dock that resembled the Neo Geo AES console and once placed inside that dock the games could be played on a television with the included AES style joystick. It was an ambitious, and expensive (but what Neo Geo item isn’t?), toy manufactured by Tommo as opposed to being a true SNK console. The hardcore fanbase didn’t have pleasant things to say. From stretched visuals to input lag, the NGX was more of a novelty than a true way to experience the Neo Geo. After all, most of the system’s best games are available across many consoles now and emulated quite well. SNK was so dissatisfied with the machine that it eventually ordered Tommo to cease and desist production less than a year after release.

The NGX may have been a failure, but it didn’t discourage SNK from trying something similar again. Likely influenced by Nintendo, the Neo Geo Mini is now a thing set for release next month. Unlike the Nintendo machines, the SNK Mini is both a portable and a dedicated home console machine. It resembles a little arcade cabinet and comes with 40 games pre-installed. It looks like it will be rather clunky and cramped when enjoyed as a portable, but it supports standard Neo Geo controller pads so it likely will get the job done when plugged into a television. Like all things Neo Geo, it’s pricier than the competition and will set you back 90-110 dollars, but SNK has an extremely loyal fanbase that will likely guarantee this thing is a sell-out.

neo geo mini

The Neo Geo Mini certainly scores points for cuteness, but how functional it is seems suspect when not plugged into a television.

And of course, the impetus for this post, is the just announced PlayStation Classic. Unlike the Neo Geo Mini, the PlayStation Classic looks to be a straight-up knock-off of Nintendo’s products. A mini PlayStation with 20 pre-loaded games and a single controller for $100, it’s a fairly no-frills duplicate. Sony has only announced 5 of the 20 games, and they’re a pretty representative snapshot of what the original PSX offered:  Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Wild Arms, Tekken 3, and Ridge Racer Type 4. Sony made the decision to package the system with one standard PlayStation controller, which means no analog. The choice to do so is being spun as a way to celebrate the original release of the console nearly 25 years ago, but I’m guessing it was really done for cost reasons. The machine also resembles the original launch model right down to the additional port on the system’s rear (it’s guarded by a removable plastic tab and I don’t know if its present for aesthetic reasons on the PS Mini or if it’s hiding an additional function).

genesis classic

Sega has made half-hearted attempts to duplicate Nintendo’s success, but the results have been subpar at best.

The PlayStation was the highest selling console of the 1990s so there’s likely a lot of gamers who hold the system in high regard. Even so, there are factors working against Sony with the PlayStation Classic. For one, Sony has actually been very good at making its classic games easily available. The PlayStation 4 may have been left in the dust in some respects, but both the Vita and PS3 can download and emulate almost all of the biggest games released for the original PSX. They’re not free, but they’re also not prohibitively expensive and the cost varies from publisher to publisher. Likely Sony’s biggest ally in those days was Squaresoft, now Square-Enix, which has made almost all of its PSX games available in Sony’s Eshop. And if you’re one of the few who (like me) purchased a PlayStation TV then you have yet another avenue for experiencing these games. Even games like the ultra rare Suikoden II can be played rather effortlessly these days.

ps classic close

The PlaySation Classic is about what you would expect.

The other issue Sony is going to run into is its price point and lack of analog support. Some classic PSX games made full use of the Dual Shock controller including Metal Gear Solid and Ape Escape. Other games were retro-fitted to utilize the new controller and made better, like Resident Evil 2. Since the console does utilize USB for its controller input it’s possible it will support the Dual Shock 3 and 4 as an input method, but it stinks to not just include that out of the box. And of course, the $100 price point is another tough sell. It follows the path Nintendo laid out with its retro machines of adding another 20 dollars for each successive console generation, but it does feel like there is a limit for what people are willing to spend. Gaming enthusiasts will still have interest, but will Sony be able to successfully attract that casual crowd that really drove sales for the Nintendo units? Considering the Sony brand isn’t as famous as Nintendo’s, despite the obvious success of the PlayStation consoles, it would appear that this unit is destined to be less popular. And on the business side of things, Sony just doesn’t have as many firs-party titles as Nintendo making the licensing more expensive. That’s likely reflected in the price-point, but it’s also possible that Sony also just isn’t going to pull in the same profit per unit that Nintendo can manage.

Revealing only 5 of the included 20 games from the start feels like a gamble on Sony’s part. Does the company think that the excitement of the initial announcement will be enough to drive pre-orders into near sell-out numbers? It’s possible, but it also feels like there’s a lack of confidence in the software. A lot of Sony’s biggest games come with obvious licensing hurdles. Gran Turismo boasted hundreds of actual vehicles. Tony Hark’s Pro Skater contains the likeness of dozens of unaffiliated skaters as well as sponsorships as well. Even Jet Moto and Wipeout featured in-game sponsorships or licensed music. It’s unlikely these licensing agreements factored in new retail releases down the road and license holders need to be re-engaged in some cases in order to include them. All of these things cost Sony money and might discourage the company from including some of the system’s most memorable games.

psc ad

The choice of controller may be a hindrance, but we’ll see.

Just like the remaining 15 games, it also remains to be seen how Sony views its newly launched Mini Console business. Does the world really need a PS2 Mini at this point? I’d argue no, but I also would not be surprised to see Sony try. They may wait to see if Sega or Nintendo jumps into that generation first though before dipping their toe into those waters. It’s also possible Sony sees this as the first of multiple mini PlayStation devices. Perhaps a second could mimic the redesign of the PSOne and include analog support. Maybe this one due out in December is to be expandable or new versions could arrive that include a different variety of games. We don’t yet know if there will be regional differences with these consoles as there were with the Nintendo ones too. And lastly, we don’t know how well this system will be at emulating these games. While many hold up from a fun-factor perspective, visually they have not aged well and may look troublesome on modern televisions. Sony at least has experience with the PlayStation TV (I bet Sony really kicks themselves now for not designing the PS TV to resemble a mini PlayStation) so we know they can make a quality plug and play device at a modest price point, but we also don’t know if we can expect the same level of quality from this device. All of these questions, and the fact that I still own most of my favorite PSX era games in a physical form, has me less than enthused about the PlayStation Classic. I’m not pre-ordering it, but I’m also not ruling out a purchase somewhere down the road. It is fun to think about though, and it certainly reaffirms the notion that we’re not through yet with mini consoles.


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